Sitting in the felt chair, I started to slightly hyperventilate. Before me, a senior NASA engineer interrogated my teammate, launching obscure and abstract questions. My concentration faltered; my turn was approaching at the engineer’s discretion. My mind was pinpointed on my performance; satisfying his inquiries was an afterthought. The prospect of failure yielded goosebumps and led to sweat on my forehead and in my palms.
Social anxiety has been an impediment in my progression through life. It has always been a struggle to talk in front of others; it seems as if my explanations never suffice, leading to stressful incoherence. Advanced classes and workshops have developed my soft skills into a package of thoughtfulness and competency. The process has been alleviated with the recognition that I am simply addressing peers.
That progress vanishes when facing new audiences. My focus shifts from content dispersion to outer perception and criticism. The latter transpired when I sat in that large room, waiting. For months prior, I had devoted time to learn about aerospace engineering. Now, it was time to collaborate with others and demonstrate my knowledge by designing a manned mission to Mars. I was confident in my work until I faced the prospect of being interviewed by a professional.
The engineer, alias mentor, deviated from order. My conjecture of temporary immunity – I sat at the end of the 12-person semicircle – was false; I was called on fourth. He glared at me, preparing to embarrass my persona and apparent lack of knowledge about budget analysis. I had inputted much effort over the past few days, but as I saw my teammates struggle, I couldn’t escape the thought of the same situation overtaking me. He started harshly, asking me to enunciate my requirements and foundational work; stammering, I uttered a bland explanation. Then, perhaps, emerged the largest source of shame: he queried about backup plans due to the moderate risk of failure. There was deafening silence for seconds before I mustered up the courage to admit, “I have not looked into that, sir.”
The mini-interviews elapsed and the mentor informed us that they were only a test. Everyone exultantly exhaled, but I concentrated on my mortifying performance. I was receptive of his sympathy, and he followed up with an anecdote geared towards my responses. He once saw a mission fail on which he had worked very dearly. He projected a picture of an internal control room on a rocket and pinpointed a misplaced screw. This one, innocent screw led to a lethal explosion. From his profound descriptions, he extracted a single lesson: ensure everything is pristine and account for every little detail.
I applied his mantra to my project and life. As a budget specialist, I had completed the primary objective of properly appropriating funds. However, I had never given any thought to backup plans and unexpected situations. If I were an employee at NASA with this mindset, mission failures could have occurred due to my carelessness. The implications of such meticulousness, or the lack thereof, allowed me to reflect on a wider scope.
I have always excelled in school and life with my normal work ethic. My work was never examined to the level it was at NASA. I always assumed that my work was “sufficient” when it came to school; I never considered multiple situations simply because I didn’t feel that it was important. However, “sufficient” isn’t compatible with the real world. Such a mentality generates grave repercussions: companies lose money, people lose jobs, and long-term projects fail.
Furthermore, I unearthed that the source of my social anxiety was not some abstract, instinct fear of people; it was fear of embarrassment stemming from lack of preparation. Expertise in a certain topic would curb any self-doubt and would improve my confidence, regardless of my audience. With nothing left out of consideration, a presentation would become seamless to point of second nature.